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Q&a With Dr. Rivers: the Truth About Spanking

1. Bundoo: When you’re working with parents, do you get many questions about spanking? Or is this something that most parents decide for themselves without much input from their child’s doctors?

Answer : Dr. Kristie Rivers: I don’t tend to get a lot of questions about spanking in particular, but the general topic of discipline often comes up during the 18 or 24-month visit. I think many parents struggle with how to discipline their little ones and look all over the place for guidance, including parenting books, the Internet, and even their own experiences. Some will revert to how they were disciplined as children, while others see the detrimental effects and are determined to do things differently from their parents. There are so many differing thoughts and opinions on the “right” way to discipline a child, but I think most experts these days agree that spanking is not one of the effective methods and in fact can be quite detrimental to a child.

2. In some parts of the country, spanking is considered an effective and normal discipline method, while in others it’s very uncommon. What do you tell parents who aren’t sure what discipline method they should be using?

Answer : Some parents may be surprised to learn that spanking is never recommended by parenting experts, especially if these parents grew up being spanked as children. For one thing, infants and young children may be physically harmed if an adult strikes them forcefully. Furthermore, spanking can undermine the trusting relationship between the parent and child.

Parents need to understand that their primary role should be as a teacher of desirable behavior. Parents should set firm age-appropriate boundaries within a secure and loving environment, and stick to these limits consistently. As children mature, they will begin to understand the expectations for good behavior and the consequences that occur if they break the rules.

The truth is, there is no one, foolproof way to discipline children. What works for one may not work at all for another. As children mature, discipline strategies will inevitably change over time. But parents need to remember that spanking should not even be considered as one of these methods.

3. The American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association oppose spanking because research shows it has negative impact on children and increases the risk of mood disorders and aggression. Are there conditions or situations when spanking might be appropriate, like if a child is seriously and purposefully endangering a younger sibling?

Answer : There is always a better way to handle the problem than spanking. Often parents who spank will do so out of anger or frustration. But almost 90 percent of parents admit to using spanking as a means of discipline at one time or another. If this occurs, the parent may want to calmly explain that they became angry and why they lost control, and apologize to their child once the situation has been diffused.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have solid, evidence-based research on their sites. I encourage all parents who are interested to check out these websites for more information.

4. Do you think spanking is effective, or are there alternative forms of discipline that work better with less risk?

Answer : I do not think spanking is an effective long-term solution to poor behavior. It does not teach children new behaviors, so they have no idea what to do in place of the problem behavior they were just punished for. A parent’s goal should be to help children learn how to change their behavior. Positive reinforcement for good behavior is one of the most important ways to decrease negative behavior. Natural consequences also work really well in young children — they will quickly realize if they throw and break their toys, they will no longer be able to play with them and that behavior will cease. If punishment is necessary, withholding privileges or time outs can be effective as well, depending on the age of your child.

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